Benjamin Zephaniah: Rage of Empire

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Hassan Mahamdallie speaks to Benjamin Zephaniah about the poet and author's art and politics.

I was struck by the Guardian article about you turning down the OBE in which you wrote, 'I woke up on the morning of 13 November wondering how the government could be overthrown and what could replace it, and then I noticed a letter from the prime minister's office.'

I had a mixture of emotions - one was anger: 'You haven't read my work!' And I have written to Tony Blair, and tried to get him to take notice of some stuff to do with my family and a death in custody. I have written to him personally to respond to me about the war. And they send me that! I felt that I had to respond.

I have never seen anybody introduce anything very radical because they got an OBE and a word with the queen. There is so much to say right now - we live in a so called democracy with so many people feeling that they've got no voice, a prime minister who seems to be the ambassador for the US, and I just felt this was an opportunity for me to say what I felt.

We live in a so called multiracial and multicultural society - and it's my culture to say it how it is.

By mid-December I had received 4,500 letters. They are now coming in from India, from Pakistan, from Jamaica. People are saying, 'Thank you Benjamin Zephaniah for your integrity and your dignity. OBE stands for Order of the British Empire - a painful reminder of slavery and oppression.' I walk into shops and people are clapping!

Don't talk to me about your empire, don't talk to me about your awards, don't fucking give me that stuff - I am fighting against it. I find it insulting.

Do you think support for your stand is connected to the feeling against the new empire?

It's about the old empire and the new empire. The old empire we know - the apologists say, 'You wouldn't have got roads in Jamaica if it wasn't for the empire.' It reminds me of the story of a woman who got beat up on the streets, and the guy threw her the bus fare as she lay there. Empire, however you look at it, was a nasty, destructive business - couldn't they have given us roads and cricket without slavery?

But the new empire - in my opinion the need to colonise a country in the old fashioned way is gone. Even in Iraq they will pull out. But Iraq will have McDonald's, Iraq will have American interests in there, America will be able to do its business there. They don't necessarily need to send in troops - they send in men in suits and they colonise the place financially. It's a cultural and financial imperialism.

How has the anti-war movement fed into what you have been doing?

On 15 February I was supposed to go on tour. And I just said no. I knew it was going to be a historic moment - I said, 'I cannot miss it sitting in a hotel in New York'. I was so glad I was there - I saw gay people standing next to Muslims standing next to punks standing next to Rastas. It was a genuine outpouring of people desperate to be heard by a government not listening to them.

The school kids who came on the demonstrations - not enough is said about that - a real historic moment. When kids were saying, 'We are going out - kids are dying in Iraq. If you want to give me a detention for truancy then so be it, but look at why I am doing this.' A great moment. A lot of people talk about young people and apathy - and I don't think that's true. They care about things, and because they're not voting people think they're apathetic. But a lot of these kids think it's apathetic to vote and then sit down for four years.

There are a lot of young people who don't know where to go. When I look at groups like the SWP I think they've got to really look at how they get those people on board. A load of kids are reading stuff and hearing stuff which refers back to Vietnam, and there is a resurgence in interest in the works of Chomsky. He is one of my heroes because he writes so articulately about the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and now 9/11 - making the connections so precisely, and his language is so accessible.

How does racism and the situation for black people today compare with when you were growing up?

I know that the number of deaths of black people in custody is the same now as it has ever been. I think we shouldn't be fooled by the fact that we don't see groups of skinheads walking round east London. The people who killed Stephen Lawrence weren't your typical skinheads. So I think the struggle hasn't really changed - just that the skinhead now has longer hair and wears a suit.

I am as angry now as I've always been, and I think things are just as bad now as they've always been. In some ways worse, because in this country right now we have torture. If Muslim people are picked up under the Terrorism Act they are allowed to torture them. That's official!

I got locked up in the 1970s for a week in a police station. I got picked up on a Friday night, kept in the weekend, all the week, I got beaten, was allowed to heal, and it went to court the next Monday. And in court they said they had arrested me a couple of days before. But they had to lie to cover it up. Now they don't even have to do that. Now any judge will allow them to.

My full name is Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah. A Jewish name, a Christian name and a Muslim name. You know, when I come through the airport nowadays, in Britain and the US especially, they always question me on the Muslim part of my name. They are always on the verge of taking me away because they think converts are the dangerous ones.

Tell me about what made you write the book Refugee Boy.

For me the important thing about that book was writing about a child refugee, seeing through a child-type view. There are thousands of them. And you listen to their stories, and they are horrific. When I wrote Refugee Boy I didn't do anything fantastic, it was based on real lives. I wanted when a refugee reads it for them to say, 'Yes, I identify with that.' To a lot of other people it may be unbelievable, but once they dig down they will see that it's the truth. And that's the interesting thing - when you are preaching to the non-converted. I get letters from kids saying, 'I see refugees on television and I thought they're a lot of scroungers, but this book really opened my eyes, and I went to the library and I read something else' - and that's great, that's what I really want to do.

And it's interesting that I'm supposed to be writing these things for teenagers, and teenagers read them, but deep down I'm writing these for adults. Really they're books for adults.

Racism against asylum seekers is the new racism, and what I think is really sad is that a lot of black people are getting on board with it. I hear black people saying, 'They're taking our jobs' and I say 'They were saying that about you, and it wasn't that long ago.'

I think it was the Sun that got people to say what they thought about asylum seekers, and they got all these Asians and black people to show that it wasn't just white people that didn't like them. It really is easy to be racist when you've got black people doing the racism for you, when you've got some Uncle Toms, if you like.

It's interesting that Bush is one of the most racist, sexist people, and yet he's got more black people and women in his administration than any other US president. I think of the people who fought for women's rights and thought that getting women in congress or parliament would make it more compassionate. If you brought back some of these people and they saw Thatcher they'd go, 'What? We got it wrong.'

What do you think of debates about 'Britishness' and these citizenship tests?

I think the problem is trying to define British citizenship. I start like this - Britain used to be uninhabited and everyone here came from somewhere else. I say fuck it - just accept that Britain keeps changing. And once you accept that's what Britain is, you'll find it very difficult to be racist because you'll know that your descendants weren't pure British people, that the queen has German ancestry - we are a mongrel race, as someone famously said. Then you will appreciate the advantages we have - that London has 300 languages spoken in it.

At one end you've got the racists and at the other end you've got the people saying 'identity crisis' and so called intellectuals saying, 'What is it to be British?' Just enjoy it!

The freedom that I fight for as a British citizen I would want as an Iraqi citizen, I would want as a citizen of Jamaica. I may find myself working hard in London for the rights of somebody in Azerbaijan - that doesn't mean I'm not British.

What I am trying to say to kids is that you are a human being - you have a right to freedom, you have the right to know that your sisters and brothers around the world have the right to freedom, and you have the right to movement.

You don't have to think that being British means you have to support the team. It's a very narrow definition of what it is to be British. And all of these people in the race industry spend all of this money writing reports and doing surveys - give us freedom, give us true liberty, give us the right to have a good relationship with people abroad and we'll show you what being British is.

You were a poet in residence at Mike Mansfield's chambers, and you followed the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, the Ricky Reel case and others. What came out of that residency?

The barristers go from one case to another and can't get emotionally involved. That's where I realised my poetry could come in. There is a poem in my book Too Black, Too Strong called 'Appeal Dismissed' which comes out of a court case where a woman from Poland, a Romany, had been raped, reported it to the police, and had been raped again by the police and had applied for asylum. This judge actually said to her, 'I believe you, I can see that the evidence is really true, but for the definition of a refugee I have to go back to this book. You are a woman and you may be raped, but I can't give you asylum on that.' And he was being so technical about it. I wrote this poem and performed it, and I had these barristers in tears. They can't get emotionally involved with their clients, and there am I pulling out their feelings.

How do you see your role today?

I know exactly what my role is. To be a political agitator, an alternative newscaster, a kind of creative intellectual - to think about arguments and put them in poetical terms so I can stand on stage and people can say, 'Ah, that makes sense!' My role artistically is to keep the oral tradition alive.

When I started writing I wrote for black people who had no voice. The thing I've realised now is that it's not a colour thing. It's a class thing and a race thing. When I first came to London and saw punks saying they were anti-racist I thought, 'God - there are some white people that like us too!' I realised to get things done we needed to broaden the struggle.

And now I also realise it's an international thing too. Bush, he knows to get business down he needs to have connections around the world. That's one of the problems with the oppressor - they're well organised. We have to be organised.

Have you heard about the new coalition formed to take on the BNP, Unite Against Fascism?

If people don't come together and organise in that way I really think that it wouldn't be long before we see a whole area in the hands of the BNP. If I said this a few years ago it may have sounded exaggerated, but you can see that we are heading towards it - they are gaining strength all the time. And you don't see any party in mainstream politics that's got an alternative. People are realising that you've got to unite and fight this thing. The anti-war coalition was a really good example of how to link up round the world, and now we've really got to do it on the domestic front. It's the war at home.

Deep down I am a revolutionary. I believe that the Houses of Parliament should be smashed down and made into a children's playground. The bottom line for me is that we have to find a way for people to have control over their lives. I really think that politics shouldn't be done by politicians. They claim to speak for the people but people all around the world are saying that they haven't got a voice.


Benjamin Zephaniah's cousin Michael Powell was arrested in Birmingham last September. He later collapsed and died in suspicious circumstances at Thornhill Road police station. Contact mikeypowell_friends@yahoo.co.uk


Having A Word

I have learnt that equality
May not mean freedom,
And freedom
May not mean liberation,
You can vote my friend
And have no democracy.
Being together dear neighbour
May not mean unity,
Your oppressors may give you chances
But no opportunities,
And the state that you are in
May have its state security
Yet you may be stateless
Without protection

(excerpt from Too Black, Too Strong, Bloodaxe Books, 2001)

Bought and Sold

Smart big awards and prize money
Is killing off black poetry
It's not censors or dictators that are cutting up our art.
The lure of meeting royalty
And touching high society
Is damping creativity and eating at our heart.

The ancestors would turn in graves
Those poor black folk that once were slaves would wonder
How our souls were sold
And check our strategies,
The empire strikes back and waves
Tamed warriors bow on parades
When they have done what they've been told
They get their OBE's.

(excerpt from Too Black, Too Strong, Bloodaxe Books, 2001)